Saturday Morning Inspiration

Saturday Morning Inspiration

This woman is a great example of the success-stories that micro-finance can produce. She inspires me to continue on in my own business and gives me hope that poverty will soon be a thing of the past.

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Capitalism: Corrupt or Commendable?

With the Christmas season coming to a close, it is interesting to see what the celebration of the birth of Christ has brought. Many people describe this time of the year as “hectic” and people are often stressed and more than a little irritable. Not only that, but it is no secret that this time of the year takes consumerism to a whole new level. Many devout (but perhaps equally afflicted) Christians wonder if this is really what God intended when He sent His son. This time of the year makes one wonder how something so pure, divine, and beautiful could get so distorted into the ugliness of greed.

Now if we as humans can screw up something that is divinely sent, imagine what we can do to something of humanly creation. Insert economic theories and policies. Humans created economics in order to create a smooth and functional society, however,  the US in recent years, through the medium of capitalism, has distorted this relatively pure invention into a greed-inducing machine.

Before delving further into how capitalism is being used and/or manipulated for different purposes it is important to define capitalism. According to capitalism.org it is: “a social system based on the principle of individual rights. Politically, it is the system of laissez-faire (freedom). Legally it is a system of objective laws (rule of law as opposed to rule of man). Economically, when such freedom is applied to the sphere of production its’ result is the free-market.” (For all intents and purposes this is the definition that will be used for the remainder of the article.)

Capitalism (according to the definition above) is the economic system that has dominated in the US economic scene for the last several decades. Today the free market system seems to be so heavily protected that it seems to be regarded as equal to (greater than?) God Himself.  Some see it as the root of all evil, where money is the center of the universe and all else -humanity, the environment, and God himself- is less important. The capitalist is the Mr. Burns of society. He is ruthless, money-loving, self-aggrandizing, and exploitative. He has raped the world, literally in some cases, in order to gain power and wealth (what is one without the other, really?) The capitalist is the reason we have such things as blood-diamonds, genetically modified food, and global warming. He is Machiavellian. He is Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But there is another face of capitalism. It is one of empowerment, entrepreneurship, and honest hard-work. This side of capitalism does indeed still exist. One way capitalism, in the more pure, closer to ideological form, is being used for good is in poverty-stricken regions to create economic mobility for those who are most lacking in it. Micro-enterprise (as mentioned in a previous post) is the use of capitalism to help people get out of poverty. It promotes free and competitive markets, private ownership, and an answer to poverty.

Ironically, the US has been the driving force for promoting capitalism (guised as democracy) throughout the world in order to “develop” it. This capitalism is better described as “crony capitalism” which is a capitalist system that depends heavily on the bond between corporations and the government and leave little to no room for anyone other than these two entities. It seems like a difficult way to create any lasting change/development. This kind of capitalism is heavily laden with self-serving attitudes, businesses that are “too big to fail,” and a false sense of competition when business that seem to be in opposition of one another are really owned by the same parent corporation.

Capitalism is what the individual wants/allows it to be. If one wants to use it to create a free society that promotes economic mobility and healthy competition, then that is available. If one wants to use it to take advantage of those who are less fortunate, to feed their own greed, and to boost their own power that is also a possibility. It is that way no matter what economical/political system is in place. Just as communism was used for power and greed in the former Soviet Union, it was also used (if not in name, then through common values to the theory) for harmony and equality in some religious communities such as the Quakers and the Dominicans. The ideas, systems, theories, etc are not to be blamed for the destruction they create, rather the people who are wielding it are the ones responsible.

Cure to Poverty?

Cure to Poverty?

I read this book last semester for my international economics class (and partially on my own accord.) I took the class in an independent study format and since I was already reading the book, and the textbook for the class was pretty worthless, I asked to use it for the class. Thankfully, I found Yunus’ approach to poverty and economics was radically different than that of the dry textbook. He brought economics to life and made it interesting. (I suspect I shall be using his book as a reference for many more posts.)

Yunus’ approach is what is now called microfinance/lending/credit and he started his own bank (Grameen Bank) in order to finance small loans to the poor. His poverty-fighting journey began when he was a professor and realized that in the town nearby there was a large number of people living in poverty. He then began asking himself what the role of university was, and should be, to the community. His conclusion, that the university should be an asset to the community -not a separate entity, empowered him to find ways to help the community as well as teach his students simultaneously. He went out and talked to the poorest of the poor and found that their issue was not that they didn’t have any ideas on how to earn capital, rather they had no initial capital to invest in their ideas. Thus, Yunus impulsively invested in one person’s idea, while symbolically investing in the ideas and futures of poverty-stricken people everywhere.

Since 1983, when Professor Yunus started Grameen, over 3.8 billion dollars have been lent to more than 2.4 million families. He has also won the Nobel Prize and inspired others to start their own micro-credit programs. He started a revolution that is still gaining momentum today, one that is the epitome of creativity. He saw others’ capacity for creativity and was inspired to create a new system to help those people meet their creative potential.

Some of the best side effects from microfinance, however, have not had much to do with economics at all. Because his microfinance institution, along with many others around the world, made it a requirement for borrowers to attend meetings with other borrowers in order to learn from one another, a strong sense of community began to take hold among the borrowers. They learned how to solve each other’s problems and began supporting each other in their respective endeavors.

Remarkably the sense of community has not been confined to those local communities. Given the newer technologies of the day, i.e. the Internet, people from these communities have been able to connect with people around the world who are either struggling with the same issues, are willing to invest in their business, or have never heard of microfinance. In fact, the microfinance movement has reached people who have never given much thought to worldwide poverty, but who, through the use of the Internet, may have their horizons opened by a story of a person whom they’ve never met living in a place like Bangladesh, Honduras, or Ghana.

The microfinance revolution has also had a profound effect on gender equality. In many less-developed countries women are unable to borrow money, work outside the home, or even leave the home without their male guardian’s consent. However, Yunus found that allowing women to be the breadwinners made for a more prosperous family unit. They were more likely to invest in the education of their children, the upkeep of the home, and food. He thus set out to make at least half the loans granted by the Grameen Bank go to women. Today, about 95% of the borrowers are women. These women are better fed, have children that are better cared for, and are not subjugated to domestic violence nearly as often (men tend not to beat women when they are providing them with more income.)

While microfinance does have its drawbacks (more on this in later posts), the way it creatively and constructively looks for lasting solutions to the issues of global poverty, international/community development, and inequality is inspiring people across the globe by giving power to those who have previously had none.

Lessons from an Article

The advantages of being anti-social

One of my facebook friends posted this article and I have been reading it nearly everyday. The advice really resonated with me, particularly the third lesson about being anti-social. I’m not sure what it is, lately, but I’ve been very anti-social. I really loved college, the opportunity to branch out and meet new people, but now it’s almost as if I have a college-hangover. I would consider myself more introverted than extroverted, but introversion makes it hard to make friends in college. Therefore, I feel as though I have reached my out-going limits. This article really helped me to see that what I am feeling at the moment is okay. I don’t have to go out every time I am asked. My creative genius is waiting to come out, but I have to give it the proper attention right now.

The FOMO (fear of missing out) feeling has definitely been a factor in my life. I hated going to bed when I was little because of it. Around Halloween time this year, my roommate invited me to a party and even though I really didn’t want to go, I did because I didn’t want to miss out. I went… and I hated it. I got really irritated really quickly and left about 10 minutes after arriving. It wasn’t that that scene in and of itself made me uncomfortable, it was that I was not in the correct mind frame for such an occasion, but I forced myself to go anyway.

I’ve found that listening to this intuitive feeling is extremely important, and intuition is a big part of starting a business. I’ve been learning that I have to listen to my gut not only with regard to being extroverted, but also with designs. I’ve looked on Pinterest.com and Etsy.com for inspiration on my designs, but sometimes it makes me feel nervous about my own. The bottom line is, though, that I like my designs and it brings me joy. As soon as I start worrying about whether they are good enough, I lose that intuitive sense of design that I have. Besides, as the article says earlier, my opinion of my work is all that matters. Although I want others to like them so that I can sell them, that shouldn’t be my main focus.

My first experience with consigning

One of the great things about living in Grand Rapids is the movement toward “localism”. A large part of the culture here is focused on buying and selling goods that were produced locally. As a result the city has some AMAZING, unique eateries, some cool shops and an abundance of great farmers markets.

This culture of localism gave me the drive to try to sell my cards in a local store. There is an art market at the largest farmers market every Sunday, however, it is closed this time of the year. That was fine by me anyway because I’m not too keen on the idea of standing outside in the cold just to sell a few card here and there. Therefore, I felt as though consigning was my best option.

Last Thursday I made it my mission to swallow my pride and head out to a shop to talk to the owner about my cards. I arrived at a boho little shop near my house and asked the owner if she had a minute to talk to me. I was surprised by my own confidence when I approached her and the ease with which I spoke to her. Ordinarily I get pretty anxious when talking to new people, especially if I am trying to sell them something.

The owner was very nice, but said that she really doesn’t take handmade things and only has a small allotment for things like stationary. She also said she will think about it (code for no?) She did give me some really good advice, though; she told me about the nature of consigning and that usually a place will offer a 60-40 split, the artisan getting the 40% and that if there is anyway I can sell it myself, that would probably be the best option for me. As I mentioned previously in this post, the artist market was now closed so that meant limited arenas to sell my goods.

After evaluating everything this woman told me, I decided that my best option at this point was Etsy. It provided the least amount of uncontrollable variables and with them only taking a $0.20 listing fee, and a 3.5% cut off my profits, I found it to be a pretty good deal for me. Although I was bummed not to have it displayed locally at this point, I am happy with my decision so far and I am happy that I at least explored other options before settling on this one.

This is also a good lesson to learn and perhaps teach to other women (particularly in the global South) who are starting their own small business. One of the issues with a lot of these countries economies on a macro level is that they do not own the businesses or the resources that they are producing. This means that the company that employs them can determine how much or how little to pay the workers no matter the amount of work these people are doing. Just like in my situation, the best option for these workers is to be their own boss or at least have as much control over their product and consequent wage as possible.

Introductions

This blog is about my latest business venture: starting my own micro-enterprise “Right Brain Left Hand Creations” in order to learn what it is like to start my own small business so that I may help other women do the same. I am inspired by micro-finance –a process of lending money to the poor either as start-up cash for their business idea or  to help their business grow– and I see it as a viable solution to poverty world wide.

As far as my business is concerned, I’ve started making handmade “thank you” and “I’m sorry” cards and decided to sell them on Etsy.com. This began with my desire to have thank you cards that are very personal. I love beautiful paper and interesting lettering, so this seemed like a really natural choice for me.

I’ve never seen myself as a business person, EVER. I went through school feeling destined to go in to the non-profit world and use my talents elsewhere. When I graduated I could not find/get a job in this field primarily due to a lack of experience. That’s the funny thing with experience, though, you need it to gain employment, but employment is what gives you that experience. A question began to well up within me: how do you gain experience, if no one is willing to give you a chance? My answer: do it yourself.

Thus I decided to start my own business and see where it goes. If it fails, meh, so be it. I guess my talents lie elsewhere. If it flourishes, nice! Then I can buy groceries! (Haha.) If it gets in this weird middle state (which will probably be accurate) I’m sure I’m not the only business to do so, so it will give me empathy for those who are in the same situation and will also teach me a lot about small businesses and how to problem solve within that context. Basically, even if I fail, I feel as though I won’t lose. Life’s lessons are the best rewards and they are given liberally.

I am also going to make a loan on Kiva.org to another woman in another country and will be tracking her progress as well as providing facts about micro-finance, the global south/poverty, and gender equality.

I’m excited about this new project of mine, and look forward to creating, growing, and learning in this process.